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Ime Udoka has taken former Nets boss Steve Nash to school in playoffs

Brooklyn's Steve Nash hasn't done much to stay ahead of his former assistant, Celtics coach Ime Udoka, in this season's first-round playoff series.Maddie Meyer/Getty

NEW YORK — Celtics coach Ime Udoka was an assistant under Steve Nash with the Nets last season, but during this first-round playoff series, he has mostly gotten the better of his former mentor.

Udoka designed a defense that gave Nets stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant fits the first three games. And his substitution patterns have been timely, with Payton Pritchard among those stepping into key moments and providing lifts off the bench.

Nash, meanwhile, has been grasping at straws a bit. Late in the third quarter of Saturday’s Game 3, for example, he turned to veteran Blake Griffin, who had not played in nearly a month. Griffin hit a few shots, but was constantly exploited on defense.


“[Udoka] has made a lot of great adjustments, moreso on the offensive end than anything defensively, because he’s prepared us for these guys,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said. “He’s spent a lot of time with [the Nets]. I think that’s what really kind of gave us a little bit of an edge in terms of Ime knows these guys so well.

“So we try to execute exactly what he says and it’s been good and successful so far. For us, it’s just a matter of trusting him because he’s done a phenomenal job of not only being true to his mentality of toughness and true to his view of how he sees not only us as a team, but also how he wants to play against others.”

More time for Robert Williams

Udoka said that center Robert Williams got through Game 3 with no issue and he was cleared to play about 24 minutes in Monday’s Game 4. He once again came off the bench, with Daniel Theis remaining in the starting lineup.

Williams had been sidelined since tearing the meniscus in his left knee in the Celtics’ March 27 win over the Timberwolves. He had initially been expected to be sidelined for 4-6 weeks, but he ultimately returned in 3½.


Robert Williams delivers a third-quarter dunk against Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Also Monday, the NBA announced Williams finished ninth in voting for Most Improved Player. Williams, who averaged 10 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game this season, received four third-place votes from the 100-member media panel. Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant won the award.

Knowing his role

Grant Williams emerged as a dependable 3-point shooter this year, but he understands that he is primarily tasked with being a versatile, physical defender. He has played a key role in helping slow Durant in this series and has taken turns on just about everyone, including Irving.

“For me, it’s just a matter of executing whatever coach has in his game plan and then just guarding,” Williams said, “because at the end of the day it’s kind of what I do well, just move my feet and keep my hands back and the playoffs allow me to be a little more physical, so the fouls aren’t blown as much. So it’s just one of those things where you have to stay prepared and understand that you’re guarding two of the best offensive players in the world right now, and just do your best to contain them.”

What a card

Williams said that some intense games of UNO have developed on team plane rides this season. This is hardly an unusual occurrence, but Williams said these games are unique because no money is involved, just pride.


“Myself and Al [Horford] are competitive but we sit next to one another, so it’s either one of us gets the win that day or the other one does,” Williams said. “Same with [Daniel] Theis, and then [Marcus] Smart … We’ve had a huge group before. We have six decks of UNO. It’s pretty dope.”

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.